This story was published in Bengal Lights magazine, Dhaka, Spring 2013.
There was no story, I tell you.
I agreed to read at an open mike on a dreary Saturday afternoon in the basement of some no-name bar near Chinatown. A small crowd – twenty people max. Nearly everyone on the sign-up sheet. I sat next to one who wasn’t. An Indian guy, said he came because someone had handed him a flyer. Curiosity, I appreciate that in people. He had a long name I cannot remember. We shook hands, and I liked the way his hand felt. I asked him what he did for a living. He said he worked in a donut shop off Lexington Avenue. It was close to where I worked. I told him that I might drop in sometime during a break. He nodded but didn’t look like he believed me. I shook his hand again since I left early. I went straight home. I had papers to grade.
That was it. How is that a story?
“Ram….Rama,” the woman said, her face scrunching up in apology. “I’m sorry, but I only remember the first part of your name.”
Rahmatullah Ahmed Howladar prided himself as one of the easy going, easy reacting kind of immigrants. His name was a mouthful, he readily conceded, so when someone from here or a different part of the world mispronounced his name – sometimes dicing it up as Ramala or butchering it down to Ram, he didn’t mind. He figured it took time for this country to digest the Kaczynski’s or McGooligan’s or Kamerovitz’s, but even names harder to pronounce than his had been eventually absorbed into the landscape. Something told him, though, that if he ever had children born and raised here, one or another of them might end up shortening – or even doing away with – the names they would inherit from him, seeking something that sounded zippier in this fast-paced, shortened-attention-span 21st century America. That possibility did not bother him – that’s how adaptable he was.
Howladar itself was some name his grandfather had appended to his ordinary name Ahmed, to suggest that he had climbed a station above that of a mere peasant. It may have meant something in the Madaripur village where he had lucked upon a piece of land to rent on better terms than his neighbors. But to his son and his son’s family, raised in the city, it didn’t mean very much. And in New York City, it was almost a liability. But despite Rahmatullah’s easy going ways, he did not consider changing his names when it came time to apply for citizenship and he was given the free opportunity to instantly retool his identity. The names he had were who he was. His children could do with them what they wished.
At the sound of what this lovely woman in a beige raincoat, a splash of silky orange around her neck, was calling him now, Rahmatullah beamed. He felt a surge of confidence. Who would not feel special being addressed as Ram himself? Besides, had he not summoned her here? She had said she might drop in, but he only heard the ‘might’. People say lots of things. But here they were now, on two sides of the counter at the Dunkin Donuts on 72nd and Lexington Avenue.
“Rah-ma-tullah. You can call me Ram or Rama if you want.”
She smiled but it didn’t like she understood what he was implying.
“And you’re Penelope. Should I call you Pen?” He hoped she had a sense of humor.
“Wow, that makes me feel twice as awful.” She wrinkled her nose.
“Don’t. Mine’s harder to remember. Anyway, what can I get you?”
“A small cup of coffee, no sugar, a bit of cream. And let me see….”
When he brought her the coffee, she said, “You’re from India, right? I forget.” The face scrunched up again.
Rahmatullah did not mind that most people had no clue where his country was located. From his brown skin and the kind of face and hair they had filed in their heads as ‘Indian,’ they figured he was from some part of India. That was fine. If he ran into a woman who told him she was from Paraguay, there was a strong likelihood that if he met her again he might remember her as being from Uruguay. The world was large, this city was large, and to make it through the day without too many headaches, he felt that it was essential to have a generous heart towards everyone he met. Besides, today, the only location he was happy that she remembered was 72nd and Lexington.
He began to tell her about Bangladesh. But he could see her eyes lose interest. She was clearly having trouble following his attempt to explain the tortured history of the fragmentation of what was once British India. Why, he berated himself, did he think he had to begin at the beginning? Every story did not have to open that way. Meanwhile, her attention had wandered elsewhere as her eyes scanned the shop’s offerings. She debated out loud whether she should get a cranberry apple muffin or a glazed donut.
“What do you think?” she asked him.
His eyes glanced down at the curve of her hips. How could he possibly discern the calculations in her head about how much she was getting of her daily sugar, calories, fiber requirements, or these days, carbohydrates? Why anyone would worry about carbohydrate content after walking through the door of a donut shop, Rahmatullah could not fathom. All they served was essentially sugar and flour. He was sure that some entrepreneur would find a way to claim carb-free flour in their Atkins® certified menu. It was sure to come. The stores already stocked fat-free half and half. Americans were like that, quick to respond to market trends.
The customer is always right, he remembered another American mantra. Before he could let his irritation show, he had to remind himself, she was no ordinary customer. He had willed her here.
By now two or three other customers had arrived and she stepped to the side, letting them order ahead of her while she still considered what to get to go with her coffee. As he went through the motions of serving the others – a letter carrier in his blue uniform, a homeless woman with many layers of clothing, a man in a dark suit – Rahmatullah remembered that knowledge of places on this planet was proportional to the degree of power one’s country exercises on the global stage. It was not unusual for people even in small towns in Bangladesh to know of such places as New York or Los Angeles. Now if Bangladesh was a power in the world with a navy or air force extending the country’s presence to other continents, more Americans might know the relative locations of Comilla or Sylhet. Why, some might even know the names of places as Bangalis pronounce them, not as some English overlord, arriving in the 18th century, had changed Momenshahi to Mymensingh. Once Rahmatullah had taken a weekend trip to Philadelphia and discovered while reading the Sunday paper that Philly has a neighborhood called Moiamensing. Rahmatullah had wondered if perhaps a general in King George’s army had ended up stationed in Bengal after finishing his stint in the American colonies. As for example, Lord Cornwallis had.
But today, happily eying the woman who stood to the side, sometimes casting him a sideways smile, and remembering how they had met, Rahmatullah’s preoccupation with names of places and countries was of a different kind. Just this last weekend he had ventured to a poetry reading. Another customer, a regular every morning, an enthusiastic black woman with beautifully ringed hair, had given him a flyer advertising a multicultural afternoon of readings. She’d said it was open to all cultures, and with a wink she said, who knows, you might meet someone you find attractive. She was always hoping he would ‘hook up.’ He had gone, though he had been disappointed not to meet up with his regular customer. Many of the poets who gathered there were black or Spanish, one or two Asian, some whites. And some people, like this woman in the shop now, he had no idea where they or their roots were from. There was pigment in her complexion, her hair was brown and wavy, though today it seemed she had done something to straighten it. He had wanted to know where she originated from, but he had learned, through some encounters he wished he could now forget, that people did not find this question polite. He’d even met some immigrants, not easy going ones like him of course, who found the question offensive. Them he could not understand at all.
One thing he learned from the readings, something his degree in geography from the University of Dhaka had never taught him: the very names of places could imply sexiness. One white woman got up and mentioned in a dreamy sort of way that she had just returned from an international rap festival in Habana, Cooba. A heavyset black woman sitting in front of him muttered, “You had to go that far to find a rap festival?” And she chuckled at her own joke. Meanwhile the woman on the stage kept on talking about her Cuba trip. Her tongue lingered on place names like Santiago and Habana and Cienfuegos and from the way her eyes closed, Rahmatullah concluded that she must have been remembering not just the sexiness of the cities she named but some fabulous night with one or another hot Latin lover.
He imagined Penelope asking him, “What’s the name of your hometown?”
Why, he wondered, did the Spanish names symbolize sexiness? What he would give to come from a place with a sexy name. He doubted anyone climbed on stage anywhere to say that she had returned from an international festival in Dhaka. True, in the time since he had left the country in the early 90s, much had changed and he heard that Bangladesh now hosted film festivals, art shows, literary festivals with an international flavor. But in his time, the only thing he remembered was that every January a spot near Dhaka was home to what was billed as the second largest gathering of devotees in the Muslim world. But when he thought of the Tablig Jamaat in Tongi, a gathering of mostly bearded men, Rahmatullah had trouble conjuring up any suggestions of sexiness. Maybe not to him, but times had changed here too and with many of the younger set flashing their newly discovered Muslim identity, perhaps there were women swooning inside their borkas over the zealots they saw on YouTube.
He had gone home that night and scrutinized the map of Bangladesh pasted on the back of his bedroom door. He had tried mouthing the names of many towns and districts. He simply could not find a way to make Madaripur sound sexy, no matter how he tried, it sounded like he came from a poor mother. Maybe he could pronounce Dhaka as something half way to Dakaar? Mymensingh? He’d already used up that lame joke before: my women sing too. In the end, he had settled for two choices. Rangpur, giving it a British edge as Rang-pore. Some years later he would find himself vindicated when he discovered that Tanqueray was selling a gin called Rangpur. Then there was Natore. He could make it sound like Notore, claim that it was a notorious place that still had ganja godowns. A quick Google search deflated that choice: he had confused Natore with Naogaon.
By now the other customers were gone and Penelope was facing him again. She said, “I think I’ll pass on getting something else.” She held out a five dollar bill to pay for the coffee. He said she didn’t have to pay, it was his treat. But she insisted. While he made change, she asked, “I’m curious, what’s the name of your hometown?”
There, he still had Ram’s power in him. But he didn’t think she’d be too impressed with his made up lies. He had failed in coming up with a name that could, in simply the melody or rhythm of syllables, translate into the hint of a hot groove or an erotic push of the hips. It would not reach into that place below her waist where Rahmatullah would like to make his home.
He simply said, “Dhaka.” But before she left, he wanted to give her something. He placed a chocolate covered glazed donut into a paper bag. “Here. Please take this.” She shook her head and scrunched her face in that way Rahmatullah had begun to find incredibly sexy. Then she reached for the bag, and her fingers lightly glazed the back of his hand.
Then she was gone.
Some time in the future when we are together, I will tell him the truth. I didn’t stop at his shop to get a coffee or a donut or muffin. I didn’t stand there looking like an indecisive fool counting calories held by this or that piece of pastry. I knew I would not have him for an uninterrupted conversation, so I stayed because I wanted to watch him interact with other customers. I wanted to see how his eyes moved, I wanted to look at how he walked, how his hands and fingers moved.
When we’re together and I’m sure it won’t go to his head, I will tell him how I found the motion of his hands incredibly sexy.
When that homeless woman took her time counting out her change for a coffee and a donut, the man in the suit behind her fidgeting in impatience, I noticed that Rahmatullah remained patient and, with a quick sleight of hand, he slipped in an extra something into her donut bag.
Kindness will bring me back. Who knows what went through his mind, but sometimes you just have to force a story into being.